When the head of a theater steps onstage to tell an audience that it can expect a professional standard in the production it's about to see, you can almost always expect the opposite.
That's the case when Carmen Zapata, managing producer of the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts' Teatre/Teatro, comes out to give us a gracious welcome and urge us to have a good time watching Federico Garcia Lorca's "La Zapatera Prodigiosa" ("The Shoemaker's Prodigious Wife"), which has been translated into English by Zapata and Michael Dewell.
"The Shoemaker's Prodigious Wife" is billed as "a gentle farce," though it doesn't follow the rules of farce (slamming doors, frantic cover-ups, split-second comedic timing). It isn't very gentle either, once you hear Sandra Nelson--who (in the English version) plays the young wife of a considerably older shoemaker--begin bellowing her unhappiness before she even takes the stage.
Nelson's Zapatera is a virago. Her bellicosity toward hapless Zapatero, played by Raul Espinosa, doesn't appear to derive from sexual frustration (there's no sense of a conjugal relationship between them at all), but from his lack of ambition in the social hierarchy of a small town whose snoops and harpies are continually pressing in on them.
"The Shoemaker's Prodigious Wife" is in part about how closely, and presumptuously, one is observed in small-town life. It's also about Zapatera's wifely hypocrisy. She drives her husband away with her shrewish complaints, grieves resoundingly for him like Penelope at the loom while he's gone, then makes life hell for him after he returns.
If there's anything subtler or more complicated in the work than that, it's hard to detect. The play is drawn up in blunt Spanish colors; the stark, unequivocal directness that serves Lorca so well in his tragedies doesn't lend itself to the breeziness of comedy--at least not here.
If there is any fine-tuning to this tale of the changelessness of character, extremely amateurish performances bludgeon it beyond recognition. Margarita Galban's direction doesn't help. In one arty song-and-dance sequence, for example, when Zapatera and a young girl named Nina rhapsodize on the elusiveness of a butterfly fluttering nearby, their eyes track in different directions.
Heberto Guillen is a standout as a suitor, if only because he looks as loony as a fifth Marx Brother. Some of Armand Coutu's costumes are gorgeous, and Estala Scarlata's rancho set for once solves the BFA's shoebox space.
Performances in Spanish are Wednesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m.; English-speaking performances Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m. at 421 North Ave. 19, Los Angeles, (213) 225-4044, through May 4.